Revisiting The Incredibles (2004)

the incredibles poster My folks came in for a visit this weekend and after watching a few of Lu’s favorite movies, my dad put on Pixar’s The Incredibles. After the difficulty I’ve had showing my daughter Wall-E and Cars, I thought this might be a lost cause, but she was into it, so we wound up watching the whole, nearly two hour movie. I’d seen this flick maybe once before when it came out in 2004 and have fond memories of playing the video game with my wife when we were newlyweds, but aside from that, only remembered the basics: after being retired by the government, a superhero comes out of retirement to face an evil guy on an island. He can’t handle it on his own, so his superpowered wife and kids come to help save the day.

The first thing to hit me while watching this movie is how freaking dark it is. The script gets into some really heavy areas like Mr. Incredible getting sued by a guy he saved who was trying to commit suicide. The deaths of dozens of other heroes at the hands of the movie’s villain as a way of testing his killer robot also get mentioned several times. These deaths or near-deaths might not hit as hard as Nemo’s mom in Finding Nemo or Carl’s wife in Up, but there are a heckuva lot more of them.

There’s also Elastigirl/Helen’s fear that her husband Mr. Incredible/Bob is cheating on her, something their kids, at least older daughter Violet, pick up on. As it turns out, Bob’s been playing hero for what he thinks is a super secret branch of the government trying to build some kind of powerful attack robot, but there’s definitely some romantic tension between him and go-between Mirage. Anyway, as it turns out, Mr. Incredible’s actually just one of a number of heroes brought in by the villain Syndrome to test his killer robots against. Each hero either defeats the robot, offering more data to build a better one, or gets killed in the process. When he’s got it right where he wants it, Syndrome wants to release it on a big city and then swoop in to save it, using a remote to shut it down and look like a hero.

All in all it’s a well put together film with strong family ties and various characters offering emotional relationships to form with the audience. You might not be the middle aged person wanting to relive the glory days, but maybe you’re the repressed youngster who wants to let lose or the teenager who wants to figure out the world or the one trying to hold the family together. Add in healthy doses of superhero fun — from the look at Edna’s costume-testing system to seeing each Incredible use their powers — and there’s a lot to love about this movie. As a long time James Bond fan, I also appreciated the many Bond villain nods that came from seeing Syndrome’s various villainous lairs.

And yet, I don’t know if I love The Incredibles. After watching with my wife and parents, they were totally into it and I was the one voice of dissent, noting the similarities to existing comic book teams, characters and stories. It was a silly discussion to kick off with non-comic fans because I couldn’t possibly make them understand where I’m coming from without laying down lots of evidence that they probably wouldn’t care about anyway. The best I could do was saying to my dad, “What would you think if another band put together a great pop record that actually borrowed a lot of hooks from The Beatles.” It’s not the best analogy and I’m probably confusing terminology, but it works to an extent.

The main problem I have with the film comes from the power sets and how they relate to the Fantastic Four. Sure, Mr. Incredible isn’t rocky, but otherwise he’s The Thing. They also swapped out Human Torch for the Flash, but the main aspect that bothers me comes with Violet’s powers. Sure, it makes sense that the shy teenager can turn invisible, but why does she also have force field powers? Those aren’t organically linked abilities, but were put together for the character Sue Storm by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It’s not like having super speed and the ability to vibrate through things because you can shake your molecules. Those both come from the ability to move quickly. Invisibility and force field projection aren’t related making Violet’s powers a direct lift from Invisible Woman/Girl.

To a lesser extent, you’ve also got elements of Watchmen in there as well with the government outlawing superheroes, a theme that had been played with throughout comic book history. I guess what bums me out about The Incredibles is that it could have been more original. Writer/director Brad Bird could have done a lot more to make a completely new story, but by compounding various elements that comic book fans are already familiar with, it kind of bogs things down. Sure, I’d compare any original superhero fiction to my internal library of comic knowledge, but this one hit off so many notes from things I’ve read and seen before that it can somehow overshadow the general feeling of fun that came from the film.

Incredibles poster 2At the moment, I’m feeling more positive about the movie. Seeing Mrs. Incredible use her stretch-y powers on screen was a real treat, the kind of thing I haven’t seen so much done with since the old school Plastic Man cartoon. I also really enjoyed how the Incredibles used their powers together. There’s a more seamless nature to the way husband and wife play off of one another’s abilities — which not only refers to their past as heroes, but also the bonds that form through marriage — while the kids need a little more coaching as they learn how to use their own abilities to stay alive. Combining powers has always been a favorite aspect of team comic books for me, so I enjoyed scenes where Mrs. Incredible turned into a boat and Dash kicked them towards shore at super speed or Violet made a ball and Dash ran them around hamster-style.

If I could just forget about all the comics I’ve read, I’d be fully in love with The Incredibles. Since that’s not happening without a head injury at this point, I guess I’ll remain on the fence with this one.

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